Books, Comic Art, Movies

A Scott Pilgrim 10th Anniversary Appreciation Post

Today morning, this came up on my YouTube Feed.

While the placeholder image on the video says “Full Interview”, it’s actually the reading of the complete movie Scott Pilgrim vs The World, with narration, digital effects, soundtrack, and a whole lot of fun. I know the movie well enough to figure out which bits were chopped (no 3-second song, no other-Scott, Wallace, and Scott sandwich on the futon). Some members of the cast couldn’t make it so others filled in for their roles (Anna Kendrick launches into Envy’s role with panache, and Satya Bhabha does a mean Young Neil). Other observations:

  • Aubrey Plaza continues to cement her status as Batshit Insane Diva, with stellar use of props, loudness, and timing
  • Chris Evans’ eyebrows deserve an Academy Award
  • Michael Cera actually sings and plays the guitar on camera
  • And Brandon Routh plays the bass (lolwut)
  • Not sure who deadpans better – Mary E Winstead and Alison Pill
  • Bryan Lee O’Malley live draws key characters at different points of the reading, the man can fuckin’ draw
  • Belly-laughing for one and a half hours is an excellent way to begin a work-week

This movie is a modern-day miracle. It was a failure in theaters when it came out, and yet ten years later, it is a movie that refuses to disappear from public memory. People come across it in different platforms and in different ways. A midnight screening, a streaming platform, an animated gif or a quote that lead them to find out about the movie. And they fall in love with it, and proceed to share the love with others. The result has been a film that has gained an ever-expanding circle of fans over the last decade. Obviously it also helps that the graphic novel is still as relevant, and the release of a recolored version has but added to its appeal.

The cast of the film have all gone on to do bigger and better things, and it’s a wonder how the makers got this talent package to come together in this one lightning-in-a-bottle production. I mean, just look at the roster — Michael Cera, Mary E Winstead, Anna Kendrick, Alison Pill, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Brie Larson, Jason Schwartzmann, Bill Hader (the Voice), Aubrey Plaza, Mae Whitman, Johnny Simmons, Ellen Wong. The only other ensemble cast I can think of that has gone to somewhat-equivalent cumulative stardom would be the TV show Freaks and Geeks. And for the record, even that was cancelled after one perfect season.

As a comic-book movie, Scott Pilgrim is positioned in a rarefied overlap of faithfulness to the source material with a visionary onscreen interpretation. This was 2010, where comics had not yet taken over the world, and the Marvel machine was in its infancy. There was still the two schools of adaptations, the first being those that slavishly translated from page-to-screen with visual effects cranked all the way up to 11, with examples like 300, Sin City, or Watchmen. The other end of the spectrum was complete directorial independence, leading to either excellent examples like The Dark Knight trilogy by Chris Nolan, creative disasters like The Green Hornet by Michel Gondry, or sound and fury blockbusters with no substance, like Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Edgar Wright took the essence of the books — its romance-meets-action comedy zaniness, the video game and indie music references, the bildungsroman tropes, and proceeded to sizzle it all together using Wrighteous alchemy. You know, the stuff that makes him a film-maker par excellence. The quirky cuts, zoom shots and montages, the use of music and score to incredible effect, the painstaking attention to detail and the use of intensive story-boarding to break down scenes. Edgar went the distance, and made his actors do the same. One example, referenced in the video above, was about him preventing the cast from blinking during the scenes to make it more like a comic-book. The end result is a movie where the actors revel in the sheer outrageousness of the proceedings and deliver lines with both flawless timing and improvisational tics, visual and text effects bounce across the screen in perfect synchrony, and we the audience are whisked away to find ourselves completely immersed in the strange and mysterious land of Toronto, Canada.

Here’s another wonderful thing about being released in 2010. If this was to be adapted in 2020, it would probably become a multi-season TV show, or at least a film trilogy. There was no way a studio would let such a mass of content be squandered on a single two-hour movie. It is our good fortune that Wright was around to pick it up at exactly the right moment and do right by it, making a perfect product of its time.

Two of my favorite Scott Pilgrim stories are from the commentary track on the bluray, with director Edgar Wright, writer Michael Bacall and creator/graphic novelist Bryan Lee O’Malley. Wright of course kept O’Malley in the loop throughout the making of the film, using his input even as the creator was working to finish his series. The original ending of the film therefore was written by Bacall and Wright differently from the books, with Scott finally ending up with Knives instead of with Ramona. O’Malley asked for the ending to be changed to that of the book, since that was what he intended the story to be all along, about Scott and Ramona trying to work out their relationship and give it a fresh go. Wright agreed. The alternate ending can be seen here.

My second favorite Scott Pilgrim story is to do with Twitter and sweet vindication. So the week the movie released, it came in fifth at the box office. Fifth! All the way behind Expendables, Eat Pray Love, The Other Guys, and Inception. Seth MacFarlane, he of the cerebral Ted fame, decided to rub it in on Twitter, saying “Scott Pilgrim 0, the World 2“. This was Wright’s response to that tweet.

 I was like, f*ck you. And I lay in wait until 8 Million Ways to Die in the West came out, or whatever it was called, and I rubbed my hands with glee. I didn’t tweet anything because I’m not a total monster. But Monday morning Michael Moses sent an email with three words. It was one of the sweetest emails I’ve ever gotten from anybody in the industry. It said, “Years, not days.”

Nobody, obviously, is doing a ten year anniversary celebration of Expendables or Eat Pray Love. I wasn’t able to remember who the lead actors of The Other Guys were. On the other hand, I have lost count of the number of times I have re-watched Scott Pilgrim vs The World. I got my blu-ray copy signed by Edgar Wright at Amoeba a few years ago, and of course, by this time I can basically quote the movie beginning to end. Envy Adams’ “Oh yeah? Oh YEAH!” call echoes in my head every time I am about to write code, or do something challenging. “Your BF’s about to get F-ed in the B” is a line I used one day and promptly exploded into laughter before finishing it. I had a grin when I walked into the Toronto Public Library last year. A couple of years ago, I would bump into Bryan Lee O’Malley in random movie screenings around Los Angeles. Which has nothing to do with the movie but is a cool Los Angeles perk that I thought I would throw out there.

One of the things that I want to verify someday, and I am not sure how that is possible, is my thesis that the original trailer to Scott Pilgrim vs The World is maybe the first to use this now-popular trend of cutting action scene effects to the rhythm of the background music. Check out the part of the trailer where the Prodigy’s ‘Invaders Must Die’ kicks in, around 1:45. Wright would go on to use this in Baby Driver tremendous effect, and nowadays trailers have overused this to the point of cliche. But in 2010, this was the bomb.

Here is a tale of regret and self-loathing. In 2012, Bryan Lee O’Malley visited San Diego Comic Con. I was there. I waited in line to get my books autographed by him, and bought the slipcase and poster that came along with it. I asked him if he had any original art. He said yes, and showed me this.

Dear reader, it haunts me to this day that I did not buy this page immediately. I bought two pages from Eddie Campbell instead, and a couple of other items. What stopped me was that I had a dream image in mind, of owning a Pilgrim page that included all or most of the cast. Just owning this would not have fit the bill.

It was only when I came back home and opened up my copy of Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, the first volume of the series, that I realized that this was the very first image of Scott in the book. Other than the cover, this would be most iconic image. It was also the image sort of used in the film poster, if you squint real hard. It was even used as a Mondo print two years later, which made me groan even more.

However, instead of ending the post on a bum note, let me show you the Scott Pilgrim original that I actually got. It fulfilled the mental criteria I had for the piece. It was even published as a print, too, thereby lowering my bar for envy at loss of the earlier piece, and what makes it even more special is that it’s a riff on a classic game poster, Puzzle Fighter, pictured below. When I bought it from Bryan’s art rep, the wonderful Felix Lu, he also mentioned that this was the biggest physical piece of art that Bryan had ever produced, at a whopping 16 by 24 inches.

P.S The table reading was done as a charity event for Water For People. You can donate here:

Also read: The AV Club discussion about Scott Pilgrim.


A Shannon Chakraborty Appreciation Post

TLDR: Best fantasy series I have read in the recent past, highly recommend.

So the Daevabad Trilogy caught my eye because of two main reasons:

  1. The eye-catching cover of City of Brass, the first book, showcased in the fantasy section of nearly every local bookstore when it came out.
  2. The name of the author. SA Chakraborty is not only an Indian name, but is also a name from my part of the country. So I was curious, went and looked up the name, and found out that the writer was a New Yorker, and the initials stand for Shannon Ali. I didn’t think too much of it, other than a few mental tsks at the fact that obscuring the first names of women writers of fantasy for marketing purposes still seems to be a thing. (Don’t take my word for it – JK Rowling, NK Jemisin, VE Schwab are all part of the same club).

I did not read City of Brass right away, waiting it out because my queue was already backlogged. Plus, without any idea of how long the trilogy would take to complete, it didn’t make sense to plunge in and then wait for yet another Windy Winter. It was only when the second volume, Kingdom of Copper came out just about a year later, and to equally positive reviews, that I jumped on. A few days later, there I was, blinking at the last sentences of the epilogue to the second book, after a grueling sequence of mayhem, death, and heart-stopping action. “I’m home”, said the lead character, as tears sprang to her eyes. I was sitting in the courtyard of the public library next to my workplace, my lunch forgotten next to me, my skin breaking into goosebumps even though it was a sunny afternoon. I remember taking a deep breath, steeling myself to wait another year for the story to end. And then I sent a few texts to different corners of the globe, with the general message of “Drop everything and please read Daevabad trilogy”.

Empire of Gold, the third book, came out last month. Almost a year since I read the first two, and I realized I didn’t even have to refresh my memory, because the story had stayed with me. And when I was done, about twenty four hours later, there was the satisfied-yet-eager feeling that accompanies the best of endings. A good book is one that makes you miss the world, a magnificent book is one that encourages you to seek out even more. Empire of Gold jump-started my reading again this year, after a lag brought about by the quarantine period.

The Daevabad Trilogy is djinn-fiction set in the middle-east, in an opulent, magical city filled with magical beings that have complicated political and personal histories. Things happen when….wait, let the author herself set things up, instead of me blathering on.

A City and Its People

The city of Daevabad is described by the writer in such vivid detail that one wonders how much is her own creation and what bits existed in some forgotten manuscript, and of course it is the intriguing details of the city’s make-up and history that drive a majority of the tale. Turns out Chakraborty spent the better part of a decade poring over and creating these backstories before she began working on the actual book, as a sort of historical-fan-fiction-woven-with-fantasy project. It also helped that she was a history nerd, with a major in medieval Islamic history.

To appreciate the world of the books, it helps to know a bit of Islamic djinn canon. Djinns are fire elementals, capricious, endowed with superhuman powers, and yet human-like in the sense that they have children and may die, and as the books make it clear, they are immensely political. That the prophet-king Suleiman conquered the various races of djinns, stripped them of their magic and made believers of these capricious spirits is known. The ones who rebelled against Sulaiman’s rule were the ifrits, and they were forever banished. Suleiman gave his ring of sovereignty and the source of all djinn magic to Anahid, first of the Nahids of the tribe of Daevas, and the founder of the city of Daevabad.

Our ancestors spun a city out of magic—pure Daeva magic—to create a wonder unlike the world had ever seen. We pulled an island out of the depths of a marid-haunted lake and filled it with libraries and pleasure gardens. Winged lions flew over its skies and in its streets, our women and children walked in absolute safety.

The city is divided into various quarters, each populated by one of the six tribes that make up the djinn, and is ruled by the Qahtani family of the Geziri tribe. It is clear that there are undercurrents of hostility and mistrust among the various tribes, along with uneasy alliances, since the Qahtanis took power by force from the Nahids. Compounding all these issues is the presence of Shafits, half-human half-djinns who are allowed to live in their own separate quarters but with, shall we say, distinctly lower social status in this world.

It is into this unstable sociopolitical powder-keg that Nahri, our identifying character of the story, finds herself transported. Much like protagonists of other, familiar fantasy sagas, she finds her regular life and identity pulled away from beneath her feet, and most of the first book is her coming to terms with her mysterious connection to the Daevas since, as it turns out, she is a Nahid. Or maybe a shafit, we don’t know yet. Nahri’s priority is to figure out who she is and where she stands amidst the complex and contradicting options put before her, with nothing but her wits and street smarts about her.

“I wanted to find a balance between a starry-eyed dreamer and a ruthless pragmatist; someone who’s learned to temper her ambitions with realism and is largely okay with the moral ambiguities of doing what she needs to survive. I also wanted to explore the idea of someone being alone in a world that so strongly revolves around family and community.”

As much as the story is about Nahri — and yes, I know, so far this sounds totally like a Chosen One on a Quest story, it is the supporting characters that make the book so, so much more. What helps here is that we are not just introduced to Daevabad from Nahri’s perspective, but also from within. The viewpoint of Alizayd Al-Qahtani, the younger son of the ruling king, one who is being trained to become the general to his elder brother Muntadhir when he eventually ascends the throne. His lens comes with the bias of being part of the ruling circle in the city and recognizing the injustices being perpetrated on the shafit. Ali is someone that is entrenched in the political system, both through his privileged bloodline and his training, and what he needs is to decide between his love for his family and his desire to see things change. When we first meet him, he seems to have made some choices that are going terribly wrong. And then things get worse.

Then there is Darayavahoush Al-Afshin. Dara for short. Once upon a time, Dara served the Nahids as one of their weapons of war, and his name has since become legend. He had disappeared for a long time due to reasons unknown, and his presence back in Daevabad, with Nahri in tow, causes jubilation in some quarters and terror in others. Things are further complicated by the fact that while transporting Nahri to the city, sparks fly between the two. And take my word for it, this is not a hurried, love-at-first-sight relationship. Half the first book is the journey undertaken by the two to reach the city, and they encounter friends and foes, and worse, each other’s idiosyncrasies on the way. The first kiss, when it happens, feels earned by both.

It would be unfair of me to reveal further of the plot, and besides, it is impossible to explain the complicated politics of Daevabad and the myriad subplots that weave throughout the story. A lot of reviewers have compared the series to George RR Martin’s A Game of Ice and Fire. To be honest, while the shallower aspects of Martin’s writing has seeped into a lot of fantasy, the comparison holds good here because of the way in which Chakraborty refuses to boil down her narrative into a straightforward good vs evil narrative. The main theme of the series is the complicated nature of relationships, both familial and of the heart. The secondary theme is the unforgiving nature of history, specifically the cycles of oppression and liberation that perpetuate across generations until someone decides to learn from them and, forgive me for this, “break the wheel”.

Spoiler-free list meant to titillate and intrigue, but will possibly be confusing:

  • There are excellent curve-balls thrown into the story, involving not just the city and its djinns but the building blocks of grudges and betrayals that led to the present moment.
  • We are introduced very early on to the earth and air elementals, ghouls and peris respectively. Later on, we meet the water elementals, the marids, first in a harrowing sequence involving Ali, and then in much greater detail in the third book. Its beautiful how all these different beings are woven into the main storyline.
  • The second book jumps forward five years from the events of the first. The third book begins immediately after the cliffhanger epilogue of the second.
  • There is a marriage of convenience. And broken hearts, broken promises, conspiracies and counter-conspiracies. Also, the family showdowns give a whole new meaning to the term “bound by blood”.
  • For a while, I thought Ali and Muntadhir’s relationship mirrored that of Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh, and was on tenterhooks wondering if fiction would follow history.
  • There are various points of the story where the characters are placed in positions of convenience, where they could have said “fuck it” and let things be, choosing to be beholden to the status quo. But of course, it’s their choices that drive the story. I loved that.
  • Dara is added as a point of view character from the second book onwards, and suddenly it makes so much sense. It’s also heartbreaking to both identify with his impulses and to understand how he is pulled into events that spiral beyond his control.
  • Pay close attention to Nahri’s personality – her reactions to events telegraph what she wants, and also what she needs. She gets the former at the end of the second book, and she has to work to earn the latter in the third.

So. Much. Love.

There are so many reasons why I love this trilogy so much. I was burnt out on SFF for quite a while, mostly because the tropes were getting tiresome, and there are only so many variants of Chosen Ones on a Quest to defeat a Dark Lord that one can take in without feeling wiped out. Hard fantasy also has had this tendency to force the reader into doing homework, trying to figure out milieu and context through maps, linguistic tongue-twisters, and a whole bunch of expository text referred to as “world building”. Dragons, witches, elves and dwarfs are de rigeur, as are pseudo-European medieval feudal kingdom settings.

Obviously, for me, it’s the joy of seeing characters and settings that do not fall in that narrow band that has dominated fantasy all throughout. It is not as if djinns have not appeared in Western fantasy at all, but those appearances have primarily been through a first world filter. The “genie” in this setting is a fast-talking trickster figure that grants wishes, and then chooses to side with the protagonist, becoming a secondary character in the hero’s quest. I am thinking of the titles that come to mind – The Thief of Baghdad, Disney’s Aladdin, I Dream of Jeannie, The Bartimaeus Trilogy, only the last of which has any motivation to go beyond the surface level tropes associated with these beings. Of late, of course, there has been better works – Helen Wecker’s Golem and the Jinni comes to mind, but even that is set in early 20th century New York, with brief flashbacks to a far-flung past.

So unlike the Eurocentric fount of stories, it’s refreshing to see a world inspired by stories of court intrigues set during the Abbasid Caliphate.

For one, the period I particularly enjoy—the Abbasid Caliphate—was in many ways a bridge between the ancient world and the more “modern” medieval era, witnessing an incredible syncretism of different cultures, languages, religions, and customs. I like seeing the way places and people change: that a proudly Arab Muslim court might be modeled on a Persian Zoroastrian one, led by a wazir whose family had been Buddhist priests centuries earlier, and that it would have employed Greek scholars and Hindu surgeons and sent trade missions to China. I don’t have any illusions that this was always peaceful, but these were teeming, fascinating, and diverse cosmopolitan cities.

To be clear, Chakraborty is not the only Muslim writer with spins on Islamic folklore. Names I can think of include Saad Z Hussain (his The Gurkha and The Lord of Tuesday is short but beautiful, and Djinn City is on my list), Sami Shah’s Fire Boy is set in Karachi, while G Willow Wilson’s Alif The Unseen brings together djinns and cyberpunk, two genres I never thought of seeing together. And of course, I should not forget Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights, which is the closest to superhero djinn fiction I have ever read.

The characters and their arcs, and by this I mean not just the three main characters I mention, but the ever-widening supporting cast that Chakraborty situates around the protagonists. It helps that the names are beyond fabulous — who can help but swoon at names like Muntadhir, Zaynab, Manizheh, Irtemiz, Mardoniye, to name a few. There are even Bangla names thrown in (Subhashini and Parimal Sen, and it warms my heart to see the former spelt the proper Bengali way). The homework part of reading fantasy automatically goes away, since these names are not only culturally familiar to me, but also rooted in a classical tradition instead of being made-up fantasy tongue twisters. The nomenclature of the world is a confluence of Persian, Arabic, and Indian cultures, and you would be hard-pressed to pinpoint the differences.

As much as it feels like obligatory love triangle is telegraphed with two male and one female lead characters, the beauty of these books is how it subverts those expectations. It is clear that a lot of thought went into the individual motivations of each character, and Chakraborty recently talked in a Reddit AMA about how she wanted her main character to go through different shades of love—infatuation, sexual experience, trust and mutual respect, while also becoming better people. The Quest therefore is not just a tagline or a MacGuffin; finding a magic sword or defeating an Evil Lord could be the endgame in a different unending war, but for Nahri, Dara, and Ali, it is all about finding themselves, owning up to and healing the pitfalls and mistakes of the past. The series does not end with a grand flourish of hashtag winning; it awakens to another day in the life of the city where change is in the air, and they who remain need to get to work.

Final note about how immersive the story was. I read the books on my Kindle, and as I was in the middle of Kingdom of Copper, I realized around lunchtime, with a shock, that the Kindle had run out of charge at a crucial point. I ran to the library next door, hoping that there would be a copy left. No luck. In a final act of desperation, before giving up completely, I searched the library app to see if they had an e-version I could read on my phone. Whaddya know, Hoopla had the audio-version. So I scrubbed the audio all the way to the correct chapter which, on a phone, is madness. And I spent 45 minutes listening to Soneela Nankani narrating the story, only half-wincing at the rolling r’s in her pronunciations of Nahri and Dara. But there you go, that’s how much it hooked me. And hopefully will do the same to you.


A Jin Yong Appreciation Post

So I recently read the first two parts of the Legends of the Condor Heroes novel, which are considered the Chinese equivalent of Lord of the Rings. Written in Chinese by the writer Louis Cha under the pen-name Jin Yong in the 1950s, this cycle of four novels is wuxia perfection, mashing up historical figures and events with figures of myth and legend. The translations are by Anna Holmwood, a Swedish translator with impeccable credentials, an M Phil in Modern Chinese Studies and a BA in history from Oxford University. Even though she gets flak from OG fans for the anglicized translations, specifically her choice of names, the English versions capture the spirit of the milieu without teetering into footnote hell.

But indeed, you have to maintain a balance between provoking a reader’s interest and losing them completely due to incomprehensibility….the detail, the elements of Chinese medicine or historical references that are perfectly obvious to a Chinese reader. And yet, it is my opinion that an English reader doesn’t need to understand everything on the same level as his/her Chinese counterpart. I would rather that a translation inspires a reader to explore something further than sacrifices the energy and flow in order to make every detail plain.

Legend is being published as four parts, out of which two are already out early this year. It is the first of three volumes. The next book is Return of the Condor Heroes, where the two play a subordinate role to the next generation of heroes, followed by Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber, which goes one generation further. Holmwood and fellow translator Gigi Chang have been releasing one book every year, since 2018, and since every book has sub-volumes, we are looking at a decade more at least before the series is complete.

Legend of the Condor Heroes deals with the story of every-man hero Guo Jing and his fated duel with his brother-from-another-mother, Yang Kang, and the twists and turns of fate that lead various characters’ journeys to intersect. In the 13th century, where the story is set, friends become foes and vice versa; misunderstandings lead to decade-long rivalries; oaths of vengeance are sworn and kept; both justice and redemption go hand in hand. And through all this, there is the thread of otherworldly kung-fu disciplines that ties characters together. In Holmwood’s own words, from her introduction to the first book:

You are about to begin a journey that will span the lengths of the Chinese Empire and beyond, traverse centuries, witness dynasties rise and fall in brutal wars and deceitful invasions, brave men fight and die for their homeland and traitors exchange honor for personal gain. You will meet young men and women with remarkable kung fu skills, you will encounter gruff men who, despite appearances, always respect the code of honor that governs the martial arts world. You will be amazed by semi-celestial animals, magic medicinal concoctions and poison-tipped weapons. You will come face to face with princes who manipulate and mothers who are easily manipulated, men whose love is undying and women whose hearts never err.

Yes, in case you didn’t realize, I am besotted with the books, the immense cast of colorful characters, the heavily involved subplots, and the universal moral themes that the martial masters both embody and defend. I will freely admit to being enthralled by the multi-page action sequences, the magical ebb and flow of words on paper that bring to life one-on-one duels, both physical and supernatural. One such conflict, between two martial arts stalwarts that are evenly matched, is fought with musical instruments – a flute and a zither.

The iron zither was the call of monkeys and apes in a remote mountain range, the hoot of owls in a dark wood. The jade flute was songs under the spring sun, whispers in a maiden’s chamber. Fierce grief against the softly sensual. When one tune rose in pitch, the other descended. When one reached a crescendo, the other fell all but silent. Neither succeeded in dominating the other.

By the time I was on the second book, the momentum of the story overpowered the sheer volume of information being thrown at me. Here a character suddenly makes an appearance, and then turns out to be related to another from the middle of the first book. We meet another personage and realize that they have tangentially been connected to the proceedings for quite a while. And of course, it helps that every new character has a personality that crackles and pops on the page. A favorite is Hong Qigong, chief of the Beggars’ Sect, who refuses to take on disciples, but is coerced by the wily Lotus Huang into teaching Guo Jing the formidable Eighteen Dragon Subduing Palms technique. How does she do so? Why, by cooking a steady course of epicurean delicacies for the gourmand. And Miss Holmwood’s translation does more than justice to the proceedings.

The beggar’s chopsticks got straight to work on what Guo Jing thought looked like pan-fried beef strips. But Count Seven knew it was something much more complex than that, as new flavours and sensations unveiled themselves with every bite. One moment smooth, another moment crunchy – it was impossible to predict the next taste or texture. It was as if his tongue was sparring with a martial master. He examined the dish. Each strip was made up of five different layers! “I can taste shank of lamb, ear of piglet, veal kidney and . . .” The beggar closed his eyes as he savoured each mouthful. “I’ll bow to you if you can identify the others!” Lotus grinned. “Rabbit saddle . . . and . . . thigh of water deer!” “Amazing!” She clapped and cheered. Guo Jing could not believe how much effort she had put into each tiny strip. He was also full of admiration for Count Seven Hong for being able to distinguish the five ingredients. “Pork and lamb bring out one flavour, water deer and veal another,” Hong mused. “I can’t work out how many there are in this dish alone.” “Twenty-five, if we ignore the variations you get from layering the meats in different sequences.” Lotus smiled. “This dish is called Who Hears the Plum Blossom Fall While the Flute Plays? Five kinds of meat, the same as the number of petals on a plum blossom, and the strip is shaped like the dizi flute. It is meant to be a test of your palate, and your tongue affords you the title of Top Scholar.” Count Seven Hong moved on to the other bowl. “This broth is too precious to be devoured.” He scooped up a few cherries, tasted them and – ah! – gasped with delight. Refreshing lotus leaf, delicate bamboo shoot, honeyed cherry – their flavours are unmistakeable, Count Seven thought, as he helped himself to a few more cherries. He chewed with his eyes closed. What is the fruit stuffed with? It tastes meaty. Fowl. It has to be . . . “Partridge?” he said out loud. “No . . . spotted dove!”

Of course, it is also the translation choices that fascinate me. Even the act of translating the characters’ names posed a challenge to Holmwood and Gigi Chang, her colleague.

For example, in the case of heroine Lotus Huang’s kung fu master father, his six disciples are named after feng, or “wind” in Chinese. In Chang’s version, they are called Hurricane Chen, Cyclone Mei, Tempest Qu, Zephyr Lu, Galeforce Wu and Doldrum Feng.

How popular is this series? So popular that there has been adaptations left, right, and center since the books came out. So far, I know of 9 TV shows based on the first book alone, released at the rate of one every decade. I tried watching the 2008 version that’s on Prime Video, and was turned off in the first twenty minutes. Both the bad streaming quality and the dated quality of the show were to blame. However, at another, more wuxia-experienced friend’s suggestion, I gave the 2017 series a chance, and blasted through twenty six 40-minute episodes in the course of 48 hours. The budgetary constraints make themselves known, but the series is a remarkable adaptation, following (so far) nearly every subplot in the books.

When I got to episode 26, the quandary was whether I should keep going or wait for the next book in the series. Obviously the book series has a long way to go before it finishes. Two more books to complete the story of Guo Jing, Lotus Huang and their journey, with Book 3 due to release in September this year. Or so I thought, until it turned out A Snake Lies in Waiting has already been released in the UK, and it’s the US version that will be published later. A few clicks and I had it on my Kindle, and the next day was well-spent. I can’t wait to get back to see how the ocean-bound sequences play out onscreen.

As for the Lord of the Rings comparison, here’s my reaction: LOTR feels like a hearty meat stew compared to the song of spice and flavor that is Condor Heroes. Maybe it makes sense from an ur-text perspective, where both Tolkien and Jin Yong’s works inspired and influenced generations of writers who wanted to create their own fantasy worlds. But in terms of plot, characters, and moral complexity, there is no contest. Jin Yong wins hands down. Which may offend you Tolkien-fans in the audience, but you should probably go curse me in a made-up language. What Condor Heroes reminded me of, and made me go seek out were more non-European works. Indian fantasy and mythology, for example. Baahubali evoked a similar mood, borrowing heavily from Indian epics. As did Mahabharata spin-offs like Mayabazaar which I finally watched last weekend since Amazon Prime had a phenomenal sub-titled version. But that’s a rave for another day.

AR Rahman, Music, Myself, Quizzing

The Rahman Quiz : Answers

The What: Hey, guess what! I am posting answers to a bunch of questions I asked seven years ago.

The What. The. Fuck: Yeah, I know. I have this bad habit of starting stuff and never finishing ’em. You know, like the rest of you fuckin’ slobs.

The Why: Because someone left a comment, and I am too nice to let comments pass by unanswered.

The Really, Why: I don’t know, man. Closure, I guess. Probably because the world is ending, one wants to wrap up unfinished business.

I thought about putting this up on Slideshare, but this was getting chatty and link-encrusted at the same time. So I figured there is no point in diverting traffic to a different site when I could just have fun in my own backyard.

Naveen is the Rahman regular on the flute/wind instruments. Who is the Rahman regular on the solo violin?


M Kalyan
Kalyan who had worked with A.R. Rahman’s father R.K. Sekar, was also part of ARR’s group right from his first film ‘Roja.’ “Rahman was a hard working boy. While working for other music directors, even during breaks, he would just stick to his keyboard and keep working on it. Highly matured even at that tender age, he was always a man of few words.”

Note: since going international, Rahman has used different violinists while touring, notably Ann Marie Calhoun, who he worked with during the making of Superheavy, with Mick Jagger, Damien Marley et al.

A very peculiar music sample is associated with Raghuvaran’s character in Kaadhalan (Humse Hai Muqabla). The theme music of which other Rahman film begins with the same sound?

This is the sample I am talking about (the video should begin at t=39s).

And the other theme music is this one.

Note: Jesus, what a shitty piece of trivia to know, remember, and inflict on the world.

Which are the only Rahman songs that have been lip-synched on screen by
– Amrish Puri
– Kailash Kher


Amrish Puri – Chal Kheva Re Kheva from Doli Saja Ke Rakhna

Kailash Kher – Al Maddath Maula from Mangal Pandey: The Rising.

Both of the above, by the way, are relentlessly terrible songs, rendered even more so by their pedestrian videos. We can fight about that opinion, if you want.

Name the first Rahman film dubbed into Hindi to not have lyrics by PK Mishra/Mehboob.

For additional points, name lyricist.


This one falls in the category of “It depends”.

The official answer would be Rajiv Menon’s Sapnay, with lyrics by Javed Akhtar. Akhtar would also write the lyrics to Shankar’s Jeans the very next year, and from then on there was no looking back, and PK Mishra completely fell by the wayside.

However, Akhtar had written lyrics for Priyadarshan’s Kabhi Na Kabhi way back in 1994, with the film ultimately releasing in 1997.

But oops, there was also the matter of The Gentleman, released in 1994 in Hindi. Directed by Mahesh Bhatt with music composed by Anu Malik, except that three of the chart-busting songs were basically overdubs on the original ARR numbers from Shankar’s Gentleman. The songs were ‘Roop Suhana Lagtaa Hai’, lyrics by Indeevar, ‘Aashiqui Mein’ and ‘Chika Pika Rika’, with lyrics by Rajan Khera.

The promotional poster for which Rahman album had the words – “Chinna Chinna Aasai, Grammy vaanga aasai”?


Mm yeah, trick question. It’s a Rahman “album”, not really a movie OST. This was Magnasound’s reissue of Shubha’s 1991 album “Set Me Free” in 1996, at the peak of Rahman-madness. Marketed as “AR Rahman’s first international album”, listening to it now is extreme cringe, with some redeeming moments. Ok, fine, I still feel ‘Zombie’, fine?

Before Sukhvindara Singh sang in Dil Se (1998) and became a Rahman Regular, he wrote the lyrics for song 1 and sang song 2, for two 1997 films. Name both songs and movies.

The lyrics were for the surprisingly rambunctious bhangra version of ‘Daud’, sung by Usha Uthup.

He sang for both the Tamil and Telugu versions of ‘Lucky Lucky’, from Ratchagan/Rakshakudu. Incidentally the film debut of Sushmita Sen. Yup, Sukhvindara Singh started his singing career with Rahman with a Tamil song.

The title of which song came from a Haj visit, where ARR heard a man selling water?

This is fairly easy if you know ARR apocrypha, or understand that May’i/Moy’i is Arabic for water. The song Mayya Mayya’ from Guru featured as a Turkish cabaret song, sung by Egyptian/Canadian singer Maryem Tollar.

Rahman has often spoken of the influence of Peter Gabriel’s Passion: The Last Temptation of Christ, and used the bassline of ‘Of These, Hope’ in Anbae Anbae (Jeans). In which Rahman OST would you hear a sample from Baba Maal’s ‘Call To Prayer’ from Passion: Sources, the companion album to Passion?

This is ‘Call to Prayer’ by Baaba Maal.

And this is the theme song from ‘One Two Ka Four’.

Also features Tuvan throat singing, African drums, and a Middle-eastern groove.

What is common to the soundtracks of Jeans, Bombay, Taal, Alaipayuthey and Thiruda Thiruda? Hmm, also Vande Mataram.

All of these soundtracks came in multiple versions, some with missing songs added in different releases, others with songs in CDs but not on the cassette.

The missing songs:

  • Jeans – ‘Poonagayil Thimuthi’ and ‘Jeans theme’
  • Bombay – ‘Malarodu Malarillai’ and ‘Idhu Innai Bhoomi’. Also, the second version of the album had Remo’s chanting included in the Tamil version of ‘Humma’.
  • Taal – ‘Kya Dekh Rahe Ho Tum’
  • Alaipayuthey – ‘Endendrum Punnagayi’ and ‘Mangalyam’ were not in the original albums, but added after the movie came out
  • Thiruda Thiruda – title track, ‘Aathukulla Ayira Meenu’
  • Vande Mataram – ‘Musafir’ and ‘Masoom’, released in the international version. ‘Musafir’ was essentially Otthagatha Kattikko (Roop Suhana Lagta Hai) remixed into English. Incidentally Rahman performed ‘Masoom’ at the Independence Day concert the night of 15th August 1997. Not seeing the song on the album made me the sole person to own a bootleg version of ‘Masoom’, which I had recorded on my walkman from my TV.

Name two (non-pop) male and female singers who have sung only one song for ARR.

Male: Kumar Sanu and Roopkumar Rathod. Bonus: Babul Supriyo and Nabarun Ghosh.

Nabarun Ghosh – Sun Le O Janam (Tu Hi Mera Dil)

Female: Parul Mishra, Sapna Mukherjee, Kavita Paudwal

This one is tough. Initially I thought Deena Chandradas qualified for ‘Zehreela Pyaar’ in Daud. However, he sang for the dubbed versions too, disqualifying him. Suresh Wadkar sang for Rangeela, imagine my surprise when I found out that he sang the Marathi version of the Roja title track.

Sowmya Raoh was a contender for the female singer – she sang for Godfather, but turns out she also sang a song in Guru. (‘Shaouk Hai’, which does not feature in the original release of the album, so that’s another addition to the list above). So was Sandhya JK, P Susheela’s daughter-in-law, who sang Poo Kodiyin in Iruvar, but also the Telugu version.

Danny Boyle recommended song Z for the end sequence of Slumdog Millionaire, but Rahman insisted on ‘Jai Ho’, wchich was originally composed for a situation in film X, where the director chose the song Y instead. ID X, Y and Z.

Z: ‘Aaj Ki Raat’, from DonThe Chase Begins Again

Aaj Ki Raat

X and Y – Yuvvraaj and ‘Shaano Shaano’.

Shanno Shanno

It’s ok to throw up in your mouth a little, after that last song.

In an interview, ARR complained that this song X used a sample that crashed his software a record number of times (vague memory says 21). The sample was reused by artist Y as the opening song Z of an album released 2 years later. Incidentally, ARR worked with Y’s lead guitarist around that time, so that might explain this. Once again, ID X, Y and Z.

Unfortunately this is one of those answers where you will have to take my word for it. This was from some Filmfare interview I read. ARR was moving away from hardware sequencers to software in 1997-98 and among the songs that he made for Daud, with Ramgopal Verma, this one kept crashing his software.

Sting’s Brand New Day album had a song called ‘A Thousand Years’ that used the same drum sample in the beginning. Sting guitarist Dominic Miller worked with Rahman on the Vande Mataram album.

What was the first authorized remix of a Rahman track?
Who remixed it?

(Authorized: appeared on the official album)

This was Yak Bondy’s remix of Chaiyya Chaiyya, called ‘Thaiyya Thaiyya’, that appeared on the Dil Se album, featuring lyrics by Tejpal Kaur. It’s still a fascinating version of the chart-buster, where Bondy uses key elements of ARR’s production to create a sparse, minimalist song where Sukhwinder’s voice holds sway. Incidentally, on the Telugu dub of Dil Se, the main song is called Thaiyya Thaiyya while the remix is called Chaiyya Chaiyya. Go figure.

(this is based on the assumption that ‘Missing’ is not a remix of ‘Revival’ from Vande Mataram, but a different version altogether.

During the opening credit sequence of Rangeela, we hear the sounds of a Bombay street as the cast and production names roll. What do you hear when Rahman’s name flashes on screen?

Muqabla Muqabla, lol. Don’t take my word for it, go check the opening credits.

Which AR Rahman OST saw its CD release on a German label known for manufacturing Varese Sarabande releases for non-US markets?


Easy: Which OST features Rahman and Himesh Reshammiya together?


So, Bappi Lahiri claimed that the Hindi song B was a rip-off of his song A. A however bears more than a passing similarity to a 1974 number C. Strangely, the definitive site on Indian Music copycats mention that a Tamil song by ARR, D was inspired by C.
Identify A, B, C, D.


By Rahman’s own admission (and a mention in one of his biographies), which album did he compose in the shortest period of time?
6 days, if I remember right.
And a damn fine album it is, too.

No citation again. Karuthamma, by Bharthiraja.

The name of which Rahman song translates to “The Chosen One”

So AR Rahman’s scores, in addition to rocking my adolescence with their music, have also led to an education in Islam-related factoids, especially with the man’s choice of song titles. Who would have thought that ‘Kun Faya Kun’ refers to the creation of all existence? Did anyone know that the word ‘Fanaa’ means ‘annihilation of the self’, before the song made an appearance in an ARR song?

So yeah, “the chosen one”? This song. Incidentally a track whose visuals can be interpreted as one of the greatest same-sex anthems ever made in Indian cinema.

“When we did (film) A, we had a song in the beginning and we used (song) B while shooting and editing. We went through HMV and asked for the rights to B and they quoted 1 crore rupees. We said “forget it”, composed a new piece C and it came out fine. Much later, they asked us permission to use (song) D. We quoted exactly the same figure.”
Who, talking about what?

Mani Ratnam is the “who”. As for the what….

Ok everyone, in case you liked what you saw, please like, comment, and subscr…no. *Seppuku intensifies*

Books, Music

Reading At the End of the World: Daisy Jones & The Six

Midway through reading Daisy Jones & The Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s oral history of a fictional rock and roll band from the 70s, I feel this desperate urge to pause and listen to the Fleetwood Mac album Rumors. It was not a normal, hey-I-need-to-check-this-out feeling, it was somewhat akin to craving for a drink on a hot summer day, when you lick your lips and want that first swig of a cold beer to fill that ferocious vacuum in your head and belly all at the same time.

If you read the book, and get to the portion where the band’s seminal album ‘Aurora’ is being made, you may understand why. Of course, you also need to know something about Rumors, in order to make sense of the relationships unraveling on the page and how this very real album, to me, seemed like the only piece of musical history that could provide the musical resonance the book needed. I listened to the first few songs from Rumors, skipped to ‘Songbird’, a track that lacerates and heals my heart every time I have played it in the last twenty-odd years, and then carried on reading.

It is incredible how great the format of the book works for the subject. It is completely immersive, and visual in a way that most books try to be, but do not succeed. The picture that emerges from the juxtaposition of multiple people talking about the same sequence of events, with viewpoints switching in near-real time, makes it feel like I am reading a transcript of a documentary video. Reid captures the distinct voices of the characters in an incredible manner — no one is peripheral, and while the bulk of the focus is on the talented duo of Daisy Jones and Brian Dunne, it is the reactions of characters like Eddie and Camille that garnishes the story, shows you the debris the main characters leave behind, and enriches our experience. The experience, just so you know, is not just that of music, or love, or drug-fueled tours, it’s about the way the writer manages to capture the zeitgeist of the seventies, and a female perspective to rock and roll that I have not seen outside of Patti Smith’s autobiographies. The way the characters of Daisy, Karen, Simone, and Camilla are so different, and do not exist as cliches or tropes of the genre, is astonishing to say the least.

My favorite moment in the book comes when the author (not Jenkins Reid, but the fictional author of this fictional band) breaks character, with a short note explaining why, and the pages that come after not only signal the beginning of the end, but also gives you an idea of where things are about to go. Like turning the viewfinder of a lens that brings a blurry image into focus. It ends with a letter from a mother, and then all the lyrics of the songs in Aurora, one after the other, in the order of appearance in the album.

It is not surprising to learn that Amazon Studios is working on a TV adaptation of the book, and I have no doubt the production team has a tough time ahead of them. And it’s not just the music, it’s about adapting the iconography the book flaunts — be it Daisy’s drug-fueled vulnerability, or the way her voice changes on the fifth take of ‘Impossible Girl’, or the visual description of the album cover shoot of Aurora. It will be hard to match up to what’s in our heads when we read the book, and I am not holding my breath.

But what got me grinning like an idiot was reading the acknowledgements by the author (Jenkins Reid this time), and finding this dedication to her husband:

To Alex: It was hard to know where to acknowledge you because you have your hand in every aspect of this story. You came up with the idea with me, taught me about music theory, listened to Rumours with me, fought about Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie with me, gave up a job to be home more, became the primary parent, and read the book approximately nine million times. And most of all, you make it easy to write about devotion. When I write about love, I write about you. We’re ten years into this party and I’m still mad for you.

Turns out the entire framework of the book is based on the Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks dynamic!